Anita Hill's seismic testimony and its reckoning 30 years later: "She was in no woman's land"

"There was an understanding — white women stood for gender, and Black men stood for race" in 1991

Published October 12, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

Professor Anita Hill is sworn in before testifying at the Senate Judiciary hearing on the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination (Bettman/Getty Images)
Professor Anita Hill is sworn in before testifying at the Senate Judiciary hearing on the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination (Bettman/Getty Images)

Nearly three years ago, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the U.S. Senate that then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her decades ago. In many ways, her testimony, which became a watershed moment for survivors and women in politics, was able to happen because of the Black woman who had come before her: Anita Hill.

A new podcast called "Because of Anita" revisits how in 1991, Hill testified that then-Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her while she worked for him. Not only did her testimony introduce the concept of workplace sexual harassment into the lexicon, but it had galvanized generations of women, and shined a light on the unique experiences of Black women who seek safety and justice. 

"There was an understanding [in 1991] — white women stood for gender, and Black men stood for race," Cindi Leive, who co-hosts of the podcast along with New York Times cultural critic Dr. Salamishah Tillet, told Salon. "As a Black woman, she was in no woman's land.  . . . And it was really important for us to foreground that in this podcast."

At the time, it was precisely this limited conception of identity and its intersections that labeled Hill as a "race traitor," a Black woman playing the part of a white woman for challenging Thomas, who was seen as representing all Black people as a Black man. 

That's why 30 years later, Anita Hill's story feels more relevant than ever. To examine its impact and gain new insights, the four-part podcast features a conversation between Hill and Dr. Ford, as well as numerous interviews. Legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in particular recalls attending the hearing and discusses intersectionality, a term she coined, in relation to Hill's story and our understanding of it today. Other guests include: journalist Jane Mayer; Kerry Washington, who portrays Hill in "Confirmation"; Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman U.S. Senator; Me Too founder Tarana Burke; and a wide range of other expert voices.

"We have to not just look at what happened and how we got it wrong, but also ask, 'Now how are we going to ensure that doesn't happen again?'" Leive said.

Check out Leive's full interview with Salon below, in which she discusses the podcast's star-studded slate of expert voices, the impacts of Hill's story on the Supreme Court today, what it felt like to be in conversation with Hill and Dr. Ford and more.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

We're coming up on the three-year anniversary of Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation, and Anita Hill's story seems to get more and more relevant as time passes. What was the impetus for making this podcast and revisiting her story, today?

We're in the middle right now of this renewed reckoning around gender violence over the last few years, ranging from Me Too, to the Kavanaugh hearings, to even just in the course of making this podcast, Andrew Cuomo and R. Kelly. It's really useful and crucial to look back at past "reckonings" and see what did and didn't come out of them. Part of what we were really interested in with this podcast is to look at what happened after Anita Hill's testimony, both to pay tribute to the seismic effects it had in our culture, but also, to look at what didn't change and why that was.

I'm old enough to remember immediately after the Clarence Thomas hearings when there was this sense of rage not unlike 2017 and 2018. There was this momentum among women, this real banner-waving of, we're going to change things, this galvanizing electricity. And yet, a lot of things didn't change. Some things did, some things didn't. It's really important to ask, what happened then? Because that tells us how we make the most of the moment we're in right now.

We know behind one individual woman, there are so many movements and communities holding them up, and Anita Hill definitely had and has so many supporters. How did you and your team choose the amazing women you interview on the podcast?

We had a lot of discussions about that. It was very much a group effort, and my co-host Salamishah and Jenna Weiss-Berman, our EP, went through that list. There are so many people who could talk about this. What we were looking for was a combination of people with real, on-the-ground experience of what it was like. So, in that first episode, Jane Mayer spent two years after the Thomas hearings really pounding the pavement and interviewing hundreds if not thousands of people for her book "Strange Justice," which still has incredible, encyclopedic knowledge of who did what and why at the hearings. We wanted to talk to her, among other things, to help us understand why witnesses who could have been called weren't called and why that was, which is something a lot of people still don't know about. 

So, a combination of people who had that on-the-ground experience, and people who can correct the record about what happened. One of the people we talk to in the second episode is Barbara Ransby, who's one of the women who took out the "African American Women in Defense of Ourselves" ad, and she points out the reason they did that about a month after the Clarence Thomas hearings is, 1,600 Black women signed and it ran in the New York Times. It was a very strong and historic statement in support on behalf of Black women for Anita Hill. One of the reasons they did it is they felt their voices and their support were not going to be reflected in the media and in history. Barbara wanted to enter that into the public record. 

So, it was really important to make sure the remembering of what actually happened is not just remembering what we heard at the time. The first guest voice you hear in episode 1 is Kimberlé Crenshaw's, and many Americans today either know her as one of the founders of critical race theory, or as the woman who came up with the term intersectionality. This is a textbook example of what intersectionality is.

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It was very important for us to open with Professor Crenshaw, who was there at the hearing, and talks about the scene where she and her colleagues walk out of the Capitol, and come down the steps and see a group of Black women assembled. She initially thinks they're there to support Anita Hill, then realizes they're there singing and praying for Clarence Thomas. Then, she realizes the tide has really turned. It's a pivotal moment in the hearings and her own life, and captured how devastating and seismic those hearings were for Black women in particular. It's important for us to open the episode with that remembrance, and her brilliance just talking about the hearings overall.

The audio testimonies of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas really transport you to that moment in time. There's such a contrast in Thomas' sense of male victimhood and Anita's graciousness. What do you think it is about her testimony that's been so resonant and unifying for women across generations?

Before doing this project, I thought I remembered the Thomas hearings and all of that questioning incredibly well. And when I went back and listened to it, I was struck with how there were just some moments that were so jaw-droppingly excruciating you can't believe they happened, but of course they did, and not that long ago. Like, Senator Howell Heflin asking her, "Are you a scorned woman? Are you a zealot who's doing this for your attachment to the civil rights cause?" as if that's disqualifying. He was a Democrat, not even Thomas' party, but he was going for her in a way that makes the hair on your neck stand up. 

Arlen Specter, Republican, moderate Senator, says at one point to her, "Well, that's not too bad to discuss women's breasts in the workplace, that's something we do all the time." And he's kind of smirking, and Anita has written about this in her recent book as something that got under her skin, the derision. It's just dripping with scorn.

So, there are parts that are really rough to listen to, and what blows you away is how calm and composed she is, how firm to her word she is. One of the most powerful moments in the hearings, which Kerry Washington talks about in the podcast, is in response to a question about why she kept in touch with Clarence Thomas, why she didn't quit, didn't report him — she says, with calmness, this is very common, she can't explain it because she would need a psychologist to do that, but that she can tell you it happens, "because it happened to me." That line brings me to my knees, because it's that confidence and certainty that her experience is valid in the face of an entire committee of older white men who are essentially telling her her experience, even recounted by her, the person who lived it, is not valid. Her ability to have faith in her own experience is unbelievably moving, and indelibly inspiring over generations.

Kimberlé Crenshaw features in the first episode, and she makes the case for how Hill's story is a textbook example of what intersectionality entails. How did it feel to talk to a pioneer of intersectional feminism? Drawing on your years of reporting on gender, have you ever felt that word is sometimes thrown around without substance?

It's a great thing the word "intersection" and the concept of intersectional feminism has gotten popularized. Accessibility and mass relevance — it's a good thing people are talking about it. But sometimes it can be thrown around in a way that makes it seem, like any word that's frequently used or pops up on t-shirts, like it's divorced from meaning. If you want to understand it, Anita Hill is the textbook case. Here is a Black woman appearing before the world to talk about her experience, and the second that a Black man, Clarence Thomas, positions himself through the use of his term "high-tech lynching," he is, as Professor Crenshaw says on the podcast, hijacking history.

He is using the historical experience of Black men having been lynched in this country to position himself as a representative of all Black Americans, but of course, the experience of Black women and the sexual abuse of Black women and girls is also a feature of American history, as Kimberlé Crenshaw points out. It's been a condition of their life in this country for 400 years. But because that was not widely understood, Clarence Thomas was seen as standing for his race, and Anita Hill was not. The suspicion was that she was playing the part of a white woman.

At first when she heard the term "high-tech lynching," she thought, well no one's going to believe that, because there's never been an instance of Black men being lynched because of something a Black woman said or did. It was the false accusations of white women that led to lynching. But suddenly, Anita Hill was seen as inhabiting the role of a white woman, because there was an understanding — white women stood for gender, and Black men stood for race. As a Black woman, she was in no woman's land. It's an incredibly important story to look at through that lens.

It was interesting for me to revisit, where I was just out of college at the time, and I experienced the Clarence Thomas hearings as a horrifying, cautionary tale about the workplace and whether a woman's word would be taken seriously. But the impact of her testimony on Black women goes beyond that, and it was really important for us to foreground that in this podcast.

Your conversations with Jane Mayer and Kerry Washington on the pod are also very revealing, and wade into how rejecting Clarence Thomas was positioned in that time period as an attack on all Black people. Do you think our modern approach to identity in politics has progressed since then with more diversity in government, or could you see something like this happening again?

There's no question representation helps, that it was an all-white, all-male committee in 1991 that created an environment where the experiences of Black women weren't understood or elevated, and no one was willing to poke holes in the stereotyping of Anita Hill, or how Clarence Thomas had not supported civil rights in his work before using this term high-tech lynching. As both Jane Mayer and Kimberlé Crenshaw point out, the white members of the committee, which is to say all the members of the committee, didn't feel equipped to take that on in any way. They also were highly compromised on gender issues in general. There was an "SNL" skit after the hearings that joked about Senator Ted Kennedy with a paper bag on his head at the hearings, a riff on how he'd had so many accusations of sexual misconduct swirling around his family and his past, that he didn't have a leg to stand on, standing up for Anita Hill.

All of this goes to the fact that when you have a governing body that isn't representative, you're not going to get representative outcomes. Are things better than 1991? Sure. But women are still vastly underrepresented in the Senate, House, state legislatures, virtually any other governing body. We're not there yet. Even though a lot of women ran for office after the Anita Hill testimony, it was still largely a very white Congress. That's started to change, but there are no Black women in the Senate right now. We're going in the right direction, but this is a process, and we're only at the beginning.

The episode featuring Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in conversation hasn't been released yet, but can you describe what it felt like to be a part of that? What are the biggest lessons you've learned from these women, on a personal level?

One of the things we as a culture sometimes misunderstand about that kind of testimony is, what we see is really the tip of the iceberg. When people think of the Anita Hill or Dr. Ford testimonies, they picture the women standing in the room with their hand up, taking a vow, answering questions, a frozen-in-amber moment. But there's a whole before and a whole after. How do you decide where to go, how do you share your testimony? What happens to you afterward? You've just been through this incredibly traumatic moment, and now you have to go back and live your life. We were really interested in hearing from these two very thoughtful women, and not just about the "during," which is what we all as a culture are usually obsessed with.

Have you been watching "Impeachment" on FX? Do you think revisiting relatively recent modern history shows us how little things have changed for women, or the opposite? 

As soon as I leave the podcast studio, which happens to be located in my closet, I'm going to get back on all my TV viewing, and "Impeachment" is first! I love Monica Lewinsky, and the idea of Monica and Ryan Murphy together is fantastic. As soon as the audio engineers let me out of my soundproof cave, that's what I'm watching.

So, for how much has changed, usually both — there are certain parts of these stories that you like to think could never happen today, but on the other hand, it's not that long ago. What you don't want to do is watch those stories with a 2021 superiority, like, "Oh, we were all so clueless back in 1998 and 1991. We would never do that now," when we're doing "that" right now, to other women, in other cases. It's incredibly important to revisit those stories, especially those that involve women who paid incredibly steep prices. We owe them, as a culture, to revisit them.

But then what? You don't want to just watch those and pat yourself on the back for being so much more enlightened now. I guarantee every one of us who's watching "Impeachment" is probably doing something we're not going to feel great about in five or 10 years, so how do we identify those things, and get to a place where we have better perspective in the moment? It's happening now, where narratives get corrected faster, and better representation in media and more diversity of storytellers makes a huge difference.

Even if you look at sexual harassment back in 1991 with Anita Hill's case, there's a handful of reporters who were really digging into that story. Most of them were women. Now there are a lot more reporters and a much more diverse media body digging into accusations of violence, which we get into the last episode of the podcast.

With Texas' abortion ban, increasing lack of transparency at the Supreme Court, and just Trump's legacy over the court, what insights can listeners of "Because of Anita" take away about the future ahead of us?

If you read Anita Hill's new book, she's very clear her work and her 1991 testimony were prompted by the belief that the court mattered. She was there both as a woman who had something to say, and as a lawyer who believed the court made a difference — it had made a difference in her own family's life, in the life of the country. We're in a moment right now where we can see Supreme Court Justices, not just Clarence Thomas, are eager to prove they're not a political body, that they're trustworthy and put the law before politics. But it goes without saying, if you want to understand why people think the court puts politics above the law, you've got to go back to 1991.

The first three episodes of "Because of Anita" are now streaming wherever you listen to podcasts. The fourth and last installment will release on Oct. 14.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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